A (Pizza) Slice On Starting Your Design Career
by Christine Lasa • December 15th, 2022 • 10min
A fireside pizza chat about design, portfolios, and working with clients between Experience Haus students and parts of the YLD design team.
Congratulations! You are full of confidence and brand-new knowledge, but be careful, so you don’t head down into the valley of despair. As the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests, you are about to start learning about everything you don’t yet know. And this is a fantastic place to start.
Whether you’re fresh out of university or switching careers to product design, keep reading.
Let’s get personal
YLD kicked off the first week of December with a real bang with all things design! Picture hosting the Design Systems London #5 meetup and hanging out with two cohorts of up-and-coming designers at Experience Haus all in one day — that is exactly what our designers Luis Klefsjö (Head of Product Design), James Hevey (Senior Product Designer) and Manuel Ornelas (Midweight Product Designer) did!
But wait, what is Experience Haus, you may ask? They are a digital skills training provider, offering part-time and full-time courses in a number of different design disciplines, such as UX, UI, and digital products. They help those that want to pivot, refresh and upskill while also helping companies harness the power of design throughout their organisational structure.
Now that we’re all acquainted, here are some of the great and inquisitive questions the wonderful Experience Haus students had for our very own YLD design team and the team’s insightful answers as they all met up for a pizza-fuelled fireside AMA-styled chat.
Now, question time!
Getting through the door
What does a good portfolio look like to you?
Luis: There’s a certain element of the visual aspect. You have to show you know how to build user interfaces, and I need to understand from your portfolio that you have a certain level of understanding of accessibility. Also, I need to see the thinking behind your portfolio, from your sketches to the final outcome — talk about the journey, the different steps, why you made the decisions you made, and what made you make those decisions. Whether that’s things like user testing, an analysis of user testing, looking at best practices, etc., those are things I want to see in a portfolio.
James: A good portfolio must demonstrate your ability as a designer, whatever that discipline that falls under, your passion for that discipline and your personality in the most succinct way possible. I like it when a portfolio has a bit of humour or an essence of playfulness to it, as it’s an effective way to stand out because the language used in portfolios can be very repetitive. Show your best work and tell me about who you are, what you do, and how you do it.
Manuel: The most important thing is to show your thought process — what did you struggle with, and how did you overcome this?
How should a designer effectively walk through their portfolio?
Luis: What I like to understand are the things I can’t see — the stuff the case study doesn ’t tell me. That’s what I need you to talk about. That’s the best way of going through your portfolio.
Everybody wants to talk about their best project because people want to put their best foot forward in all situations. I like to ask designers about their worst project experiences. The ones that didn’t go well. If you can talk me through a project that didn’t go well and you can still give me what I need, such as the thought process behind it and understanding outcomes, then you are someone that truly understands what you’re doing; it may still be a project that made you grow a lot.
James: No one really tells you this, although it may sound obvious: when you’re a (junior) designer, you can be apprehensive about walking people through your work. Particularly with your portfolio. Remember that the person you’re talking to doesn’t have that knowledge. Embrace that opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and the rationale behind why you did things. All the information you give is worth something. Don’t hold back from saying something because you think it’s obvious — the person you’re talking to doesn’t know. Tell me what you did, how you did it, and what the outcomes were.
Manuel: Pick one or two projects from your portfolio that you can go through in thorough detail and provide insight on things that can’t be visually seen.
How can an aspiring designer changing career talk about their experience if it is not digital design or UX/UI related?
Luis: Stop thinking about the job title and the role you had previously, and look at what you have done in terms of tasks and break those down. This is how you can easily appreciate the skills that are transferable to accomplish tasks, especially if you’re shifting industries. It’s important to show how you think and the process, as this is ultimately what you’ll be doing as a designer. If you don’t have any experience working with, let’s say, engineers, it’s important to know what they do and find a way to connect with them through the raw tasks rather than focusing on titles and roles.
What are the top misconceptions when hiring UX/UI designers?
Luis: Probably that a UX and UI designer is always the same person — It isn’t as it’s not the same thing. It’s two different expertise and specialities. You don’t have to be a great UX designer to do great UI work. Both are such big fields, and expecting someone to always have both skills at an equal level and expect them to be the ONLY person to do both of those jobs — I think a lot of people who are hiring sometimes get that wrong. I often see that with clients who don’t have very high design maturity or haven’t hired many people in this area before.
James: One of the big misconceptions, if it’s in a non-tech company context, people assume that UX, UI, and Product function like traditional design roles in terms of a “waterfall” approach to the work. It can be jarring working in an agile way for them. It’s important to be aware that UX and UI demand a slightly different way of working compared to other design disciplines. Most designers have one area of focus or preference where they enjoy working. UX and UI are different disciplines, each with unique considerations and expertise. You have to know how each discipline relates to what you want to focus on. For example, I know UX work, and I do UX work, but I prefer doing UI work, so when a project comes along, I’m more likely to be tasked with more UI-focused issues. I still have to understand UX to do good UI work.
Manuel: In the hiring process, it’s easier for smaller companies to focus on the actual design and not the UX part of the job. Many junior designers that come from boot camps often come from a graphic design background. This is less the case now, though.
What are some things you look for when hiring a designer?
Luis: In hiring someone, I look for people who have investigative research skills to ask insightful questions. I want to see that they have an understanding of Design Thinking and User-Centred Design and that they can talk through their process, the various product development steps, their approach to research, and how they do research. If you can talk through how you approach a project and ask questions like What problem are we solving? Who are we solving it for? Why is this a problem in the first place? — then you are on a good path.
James: Every company will tell you they’ve put the user or customer first — basically Design Thinking. In its truest form, Design Thinking means setting aside internal egos or, within reason, commercial restraints or demands and creating something that puts the user’s needs first as much as possible. There will always be real-world things that restrict you from doing that, but if you can show us that you are at least trying to get there, that’s a good start. Remember that you’re not the user. Your company is not the user. Don’t let your or the company’s biases bleed into what you’re designing because that won’t serve the end user.
Manuel: The full range of procedures a designer does. It starts from understanding the users, finding the problems, generating the ideas, then the prototypes so you can test and implement things for the benefit of the end-user — that is what we want to see.
What does it take to be a good product designer?
Luis: Someone who has empathy and can actively listen to someone when doing research, to be curious and creative. You need to have a hunger for understanding things you don’t know, and accept that you are not the most knowledgeable person in the room. This is handy when exploring an industry you may not know anything about or talking to a group of people in a demographic you haven’t encountered before. A portfolio is you claiming you can do this, then what sets you apart is being able to execute.
James: being able to balance users’ needs and commercial needs with equal amounts of empathy, curiosity, and an absence of ego. It’s a fine line to tread.
Manuel: Stick with your design process. Every design process can vary per person, but finding yours and sticking with it is key. At the same time, learning how and when to compromise with the rest of the team, and the client is important. Things won’t always go your way, so finding the balance and middle ground is important.
How do you adjust from a boot camp into a junior designer role in a consultancy?
Manuel: I come from a visual background and didn’t have that much experience working with clients in my boot camp. After joining YLD, I was in a big shock at first working with clients, and now that I’m focusing on my UX skills, I’ve opened my eyes to what I didn’t know prior. It’s been a great experience as YLD supports our growth and we’re highly encouraged to keep learning.
Exploring ways of working on projects
What are your, as in YLD’s, ways of working with clients?
Once we start an engagement, we do one to two discovery sprints to analyse and understand how they work and how YLD can fit in. We’re not here to tell them they’re doing it wrong, but rather to find a common way to help them to the right path. A lot of it is through a teaching and coaching approach.
Once the discovery period is done, we put an extensive report together to summarise what we learned during the discovery phase. This includes an analysis of everything that we’ve learnt — from the tech stack, their code base to their current design approaches and processes in place, as well as how well put together their vision is and much more — you can say it’s an assessment of the company right now. It’s important to show the problems as well as reinforce the strengths they’re already doing.
We spend a lot of time finding the right people for the right project because that will increase our chances of success, and the client’s success is ultimately our success. We prefer to build cross-functional teams wherever possible — teams that have both engineers and designers but also product people and, where needed, data specialists.
Our clients always have a point of contact at YLD to turn to, someone that is great at talking to people and can really find out how we can help them in the best way possible.
Which part of the design process do you share with the client?
It’s best to share everything with them at a high level. By doing this, the client can appreciate the importance of being part of the process. Both parties develop a sense of shared ownership, and the client can recognise the hard work the teams put in, where their money is going, and what they’re getting, as well as knowing that they have continuous input and insight.
Do you physically get involved with the teams to understand what’s happening, or do you get involved remotely?
Either works. What is important is that we get involved and get our hands dirty. The idea of client relationships and managing client relationships boils down to the granular day-to-day work, and we just have to navigate that. There can be challenges, but most clients we’ve worked with have been fairly positive. There’s always a foundation already set in place that our people must find a way to embed into, or if needed, find new ways of working and thinking to ensure everyone harmoniously works well together.
During the research period/ discovery phase, when we talk to people, we don’t limit ourselves to talking to the leadership teams or decision-makers only. They are important, but we also want to talk to those with whom our team would interact daily in the project or those who this project will impact in one way or another. We strive to talk to all key stakeholders, like engineering leads, designers, and more, to understand how they work and we prefer to have those conversations one-on-one. Doing things this way allows these people to open up and really share; for us, that’s highly important.
How do you manage creativity when the scope is really broad in the first place, like when someone says, “we want to revolutionise this or that space?
We need to understand what “revolutionising” a product in this or that space actually means. Think about who is using this product and how it will be used. What do these people want from this product? This is a good starting point when a client sets something too broad or arbitrary aspirational as a goal. Creativity is important, but ultimately we are designers and not always artists. There’s a certain end-user experience we’re trying to deliver, so try to get the fundamentals of how it’s supposed to work. Extract the structure, get the basics right, and then you can start experimenting with the creative aspect of things, as long as the fundamentals like flow and behaviour are there.
The improvement your proposal or ideas makes for the end-user can help you determine a more realistic version of what “revolutionising” means in that context — sometimes it can be something fairly simple, but the impact can be “revolutionising”.
What about data and measuring design outcomes?
Data is very important. We always ask our clients what success looks like and what data they’re collecting. Most of the time, they have a lot of data but just don’t know how to use it or what to do with it. It is also important to understand early on what success metrics are key for the project — what are the outcomes and values that we want to achieve, and how do we measure them. For working with more complex data, we have a few data scientists that help the client and us during the project.
Wrapping things up
There were only so many questions the YLD team could answer in the two hours of this fireside chat over pizza, but honestly, they could probably have stayed all afternoon — there’s still so much to be talked about and explored!
Our design team had a ball meeting with all the ambitious and driven students, and we can’t wait to come back for another session with future cohorts at Experience Haus! To the students of these two cohorts, we want to say a huge thank you for having us, and all the best as they set off for new heights in their design careers!
By the way, if you’re seeking an opportunity to work on impressive projects alongside the best designers, engineers, and data scientists, let’s chat at firstname.lastname@example.org for open jobs. Also, if you struggle with a particular project and need expertise with the latest technologies, you really should reach out to us at email@example.com.
Written by Christine Lasa • December 15th, 2022
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